Innocence Lost

Was the case against Lacresha Murray, the youngest Texan ever tried for capital murder, a rush to judgment or a story of justice denied?

Alicia Turner had just arrived at the Hansford Drive home to pick up her children when she saw the condition of the baby and urged the 67-year-old grandfather to place a call to 911. Instead, R.L. Murray, who has walked with the aide of crutches since his legs were paralyzed by polio in childhood, and Lacresha got into the family van and hurried the convulsing child to nearby Breckenridge Hospital. It was a barefoot Lacresha who carried the baby's limp body into the emergency room. After 20 minutes of intensive CPR, Jayla Latre Belton was pronounced dead.

She was still lying on a gurney, a tube in her mouth and electrodes attached to her tiny chest, when Judy Belton, alerted at her job as supervisor of a local bookstore, and Derrick Shaw arrived at the hospital. "She was so cold," the mother remembers. "I just kissed her, rubbed her head and told her that I loved her."

Kent Burress, a social worker at the hospital at the time, would later testify that he had escorted Belton and Shaw to the child's body and found Shaw's behavior unusual in light of the circumstances. While the distraught mother lingered over Jayla, Burress remembered, Shaw seemed more concerned with getting a parking sticker for his automobile.

Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle acknowledges "we felt we were rushed" in prosecuting Murray.
Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle acknowledges "we felt we were rushed" in prosecuting Murray.
A former legal secretary, Barbara Taft, who did not know the Murray family, became Lacresha's most outspoken champion. "I knew in my heart...that Lacresha was innocent."
John Anderson
A former legal secretary, Barbara Taft, who did not know the Murray family, became Lacresha's most outspoken champion. "I knew in my heart...that Lacresha was innocent."

An autopsy, performed by Travis County medical examiner Roberto Bayardo, ruled that the child had died from a severe blow to the liver. During his examination he also found 30 bruises scattered over the child's head, legs and torso; a 3/4-inch abrasion near the base of the skull; and four broken ribs. A blunt-force injury to the abdomen, he ruled, had broken the ribs and severed the liver. The fatal injury, he said, had taken place no more than 15 minutes before the child's death.

R.L. Murray would later insist that he had seen no bruises on Jayla Belton's body when Lacresha brought her to him. The mother who was there to pick up her children, however, told a jury that she noticed what she thought were bruises on the 2-year-old's stomach as she was being carried from the house for the trip to the hospital.

It was Dr. Bayardo's opinion that a homicide had occurred.

Within days the investigation centered on 11-year-old Lacresha, the large-for-her-age child with an outgoing personality--a happy-go-lucky girl who enjoyed playing basketball, singing in the church choir and taking evening walks through the neighborhood with her grandmother. The primary reason to assume her the most likely suspect: She was the last person known to have been in the company of Jayla before it became necessary to rush her to the hospital.

Ironically, it was a sworn statement given to police by her grandfather that helped turn suspicion toward her. He was sitting in the living room, he recalled, when Lacresha came inside from the back yard to go to the bathroom in the rear of the Murrays' east Austin home. "I heard a thumping noise," he said in his affidavit. "It sounded like someone throwing a ball against the wall. I called out to Lacresha and asked her what was going on. She said that she was playing ball, and I told her she knew better; she is not supposed to play ball in the house.

"About a minute later she came into the hallway and said that [Jayla] was shaking and throwing up. That's when I told her to bring the baby to me."

It was after the frantic trip to the emergency room and the pronouncement that little Jayla was dead that the elder Murray told police, "If Lacresha did this, I want to see her get some help."

As the investigation got under way, police requested that Child Protective Services officials remove Lacresha and her siblings--sister Cleo and three younger brothers--from the Murray home, standard procedure in such cases.

Isolated from her family at the Texas Baptist Children's Home in nearby Round Rock for four days, she was finally interviewed by Austin police homicide detective Ernesto Pedraza for nearly three hours with neither a lawyer nor the grandparents she'd lived with since age 2 present. She repeatedly insisted that she had done nothing to harm the baby. On no fewer than 39 occasions during the interview, Lacresha said that she did not know what had happened to cause Jayla's death. Finally, calling on 20 years' experience in investigating homicides, Sgt. Pedraza began to question Lacresha along less accusatory lines:

Sgt. Pedraza: "I know it's real hard, Lacresha. It's hard when something like this happens, but you know there's a reason, there might be a reason why this happened. You know, you might have been carrying the baby and the baby might've fallen from your arms, or fell off the bed, or something like this...but until we hear it from you, we won't know. We need to get your side of the story."

Lacresha: "I just told you."

Sgt. Pedraza: "...You're not telling me all of it."

Lacresha: "Yes I am."

Sgt. Pedraza: "...I have a doctor who says those injuries happened at the time. You know where it leads us to? To you. And like I was explaining to you, there are reasons why the baby sustained those injuries. There's always an explanation to everything...Things happen, we make mistakes. I make mistakes all the time, you know. But I don't try to hide them...You're a young girl. You still have your whole life ahead of you...we can correct things. Do you understand what I'm saying?"

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